Waste Water Issues for Westchester & NYC

I attended a Conservation Cafe recently at Pace University (sponsored by Westchester DEP and Department of Planning?). The discussion was about waste water handling in the county, septic systems and the NYC watershed, impacts of outflow on LI Sound and the Hudson.

One interesting, though not surprising? thing to come of this is that even with MS4 regulations for wastewater handling, there still is nothing being done to manage dissolved medical wastes (from flushing of discarded pills and/or urine and fecal release.) So all of that (often estrogenetic or psychotropic) material is being released into our waterways post-sewer plant processing.

There is a Weschester program offered during household waste clean-up days to accept unwanted (residue) prescriptions. But for hospitals, nursing homes, etc. there are no permanent disposal programs. This stuff should be taken to the solid waste processing center for burning. (Currently, it is claimed that a call to the DEP about unwanted or out-of-date prescription drugs results in the advice to simply flush the stuff down the toilet. WRONG! Concerned citizens and municipalities should certainly be working to get THAT piece of advice changed ASAP!)

There was an recently published federal study looking at a handful of municipalities around the country, specifically at the impact on fish populations in the watersheds around the outflow of sewage treatment plants - and of course all of the fish had detectable amounts of medical products in their flesh. Based upon this result, a larger federal study of 140 municipalities is planned. (Supposedly, the doses found in the fish flesh are nowhere near levels currently regulated for human consumption... But of course, the COMBINED impacts of trace medicinals has not been studied in any detail, nor are there any specific "combinatorial" dose regulations.)

It is interesting to note that medicinal byproducts have been detected in the drinking water supply of over 46 million Americans... There is less concern for us in Westchester in that treated waste water released by sewage plants which flows into the estuary and then, based upon tidal cycles, gets disbursed up and down the Hudson, does not form part of our drinking supply. That is to say, currently, communities in Westchester do not get their drinking water from the Hudson.

However, there are many locations around the country which in fact draw water from (river or lake) sources which are "downstream" from other communities' treatment plants. Thus, they are drinking medical wastes. And actually, in Westchester, especially in northern parts of the county where there is a high percentage of septic-based waste processing, the potential for intake of medicinal waste products (including estrogenetics, anti-depressants and other compounds) due to contamination of well-drawn groundwater is much higher. Extensive testing for this risk is not typically done and is not in fact required by law. So the full impact is unknown.

Extremely low does of estrogenetic compounds have been shown to affect amphibians and fish - including affecting normal body development, sexual development, reproduction and sex ratios of populations.

The final area to report on has to due with OVERFLOW of partially treated waste materials from the sewage treatment plants (such as the Yonkers plant's recent extended release due to servicing of a major 54" force main sewer leading to the plant...) The overflow is treated partially - removal of solid materials is attempted as best as possible, and large doses of chlorine are added to kill bacteria. However, note that even with "normal" rainfall events, THIS OVERFLOW OCCURS. The plants may experience anywhere from a 2x to 3x or more overload of capacity during a storm event peak surge. In such cases, the treatment of the overflow becomes minimal, thus quite often the count of dangerous bacteria spikes markedly in the outflow water (and in the "sink" destination around the outflow such as the L.I. Sound or the Hudson...)

Already, for years now, beaches around the Sound are often closed after rain events due to bacteria levels resulting from the overflow.

But what we need to realize is that for our Rivertown area, the same overflow occurs all the time from the Yonker's plant - without any public warning. During the recent repair work, municipalities were warned ahead of time, but I for one did not see any "stay out of the water" warnings from Westchester County's email alert service, nor from Irvington's email listserv. Why not? This sort of health related safety information should certainly be posted / emailed out for timely community notification.

But in addition, it all comes back to public education on how to REDUCE peak water surges into sewer systems during rain events - or even during normal daily activity. It's not rocket science. Many of the guidelines are simple to understand and to follow, but can result in a significant reduction in sewage flow.

Of course, stormwater runoff is also an issue where ever it becomes merged into the sewer system. There are potentially many such "inflows" around our area, especially in older areas of construction before any storm management requirements were legislated. Public education would help ensure that some percentage of property owners would undertake repairs to correct such issues on their own property. Other than that, new construction and existing areas have to be monitored, esp. after rain events, to help detect improper or illegal stormwater connections.

Related to this is the urgent need to control peak flow of stormwater thru the stormwater system - which is another whole discussion.

return to top